Best New Restaurant

CommonWealth's Chef de Cuisine Antonio Burrell, Executive Chef Jamie Leeds, and Executive Sous Chef Abigail Fellows (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Best: Inox

1800 Tysons Blvd., McLean, Va., (703) 790-4669
Second-Best: CommonWealth
1400 Irving St. NW, (202) 265-1400

Despite the Dow’s death spiral and unemployment rates that are beginning to look like pommel horse scores, the D.C. area has continued to pump out new restaurants. Granted many of them were probably on the drawing board before the economy tanked, but our market still appears to have enough might to support new eateries at all levels, from delis like Taylor Gourmet (whose owner told me the place is three years ahead of its revenue projections) to casual bistros like Et Voila! (good luck getting a seat) to fine-dining outposts like Ristorante Posto (where the waits can stretch to 30 minutes or longer). But of all the newbies, I think Inox has the most potential to enjoy a long and happy life.

At present, Inox isn’t even close to what it will be in, say, six months or a year from now. Chef/owners Jon Mathieson and Jonathan Krinn, the former brain trust behind 2941, seem to be trying too hard to live up to the hype that preceded Inox’s opening. Their flavor combinations are often ambitious and challenging—seared day-boat scallops with pickled green mango and blood orange or pumpkin pierogi with black eyed peas—but they don’t always gel into that expected moment of ecstasy. They make you think more often than they make your mouth water.

If I’m going to have my paradigm shifted, I at least want to drool over it, like I do with the chefs’ brilliant appetizer of butter-poached Maine lobster served with braised-short-rib ravioli. But if I know anything about Krinn, he won’t stop until he achieves perfection.

CommonWealth, by contrast, hasn’t set the bar as high as Inox, which is just fine by me. Mercifully, chef/owner Jamie Leeds wasn’t interested in opening yet another thinky New American restaurant; her gastropub is patterned after the English originals and, as such, it embraces both tradition and innovation.

As executed by chef de cuisine Antonio Burrell, Leeds’ menu is chock full of pub favorites, from pot pies to fish and chips, which are elevated to a level that might cause confusion, or even outright cognitive dissonance, to those who hold English food in low esteem. The butcher board alone is enough to make you cry with delight into your Tetley’s ale, one of many English beers available here.

At CommonWealth, you won’t get white tablecloths or a brigade of servers trained on the finer points of plate presentation. You’ll get something much rarer in this town: a place that dares to break the mold of a neighborhood restaurant. CommonWealth is both neighborly and downright cool.